The church's strategy of cover-up: A classic example

By a Broken Rites researcher (article posted 10 January 2016)

Broken Rites research has discovered how an Australian Catholic leader (Bishop William Brennan) covered up allegations of clergy sex-abuse in his diocese. Police charged one of Brennan's priests (Father Bernard Connell) with allegedly abusing two boys in different parishes but Bishop Brennan hired an expert legal team to defeat the charges. One of these victims then asked Bishop Brennan for help but the bishop shunned him. The bishop's main aim was protecting the church's holy image, instead of protecting children.

The accused priest, Father Bernard M. Connell, belonged to the Wagga Wagga diocese in southern New South Wales. This diocese extends southward to Albury on the Victorian border. This is one of the eleven dioceses into which the state of New South Wales is divided. Bishop Brennan was in charge of the Wagga Wagga diocese from 1983 to 2002.

Bernie Connell, born in 1938, came from a large family in Cootamundra, southern NSW. He attended school at De La Salle Brothers in Cootamundra until 1951 and then completed his schooling at St Patrick’s College in Goulburn. He began training for the priesthood in 1957. He was ordained as a priest in 1983.

Bishop Brennan, too, was born in 1938. He started studying for the priesthood in Sydney but did some of his studies in Rome. Father Connell always belonged to the Wagga Wagga diocese, whereas Brennan started in another diocese and moved to Wagga Wagga to become its bishop.

Broken Rites has searched the annual editions of the printed Australian Catholic Directory to compile a table of Father Bernie Connell's parishes. From early 1964 to late 1991, his parish postings included:

  • parishes at Junee and Albury in the 1960s;
  • South Wagga Wagga parish in the early 1970s;
  • working as a chaplain at army bases in Puckapunyal (Victoria) and Holdsworthy (NSW) in the 1970s;
  • Lockhart parish in 1978;
  • Albury and Tocumwal parishes in the 1980s; and
  • Leeton parish in 1990-91.

The 1985 edition of the printed Australian Catholic Directory listed Fr Bernard Connell as the secretary of the Diocesan Council of Priests in the Wagga Wagga diocese.

In 1992, Bishop Brennan arranged for Father Connell to take leave from the Wagga Wagga diocese, so that he could work as a priest in the tiny Pacific nation of Kiribati (situated between Nauru and the Gilbert Islands). For legal reasons, it suited Bishop Brennan to have Connell absent from Australia. Father Connell then began playing a significant role in the Kiribati diocese. However, officially, he still belonged to the Wagga Wagga diocese. In 1992, the Australian Catholic Directory listed him, in the Wagga Wagga section, as "on leave/overseas", with his mailing address given as "care of" the Wagga Wagga diocese office.

In November 1993, Broken Rites victim support group was contacted by a former altar boy (let us refer to him as "Trevor", born in 1954), who says he encountered Father Connell in 1964, aged ten.

In 1993, Trevor gave certain information to detectives in the NSW Police. An investigation was conducted by the Child Protection Investigation Team in Sydney. Two years later, in October 1995, detectives arrested Connell when he was re-visiting Australia on holidays. The detectives charged Connell with three offences against "Trevor", comprising one  incident of sodomy and two incidents of indecent touching of the child. These charges, together with Father Connell's name, were reported in the Wagga Wagga Daily Advertiser newspaper on 19 October 1995.

Court proceedings

In November 1995, Connell appeared before a magistrate in a NSW Local Court, where the charges were officially filed. The magistrate committed Connell to stand trial in the NSW District Court.  The charges were reported in media outlets in southern NSW on 19 November 1995, including the Wagga Wagga Daily Advertiser, ABC Radio Wagga Wagga and Radio 2AY Albury. These news reports named the defendant as Fr Bernard Connell.

Following this news coverage, the detectives received information from another alleged victim (Broken Rites will refer to him as "Kraig"), who encountered Connell in a different parish.

On 15 May 1997, Connell (then aged 59) appeared in Albury District Court, charged with sexual offences against "Trevor" and "Kraig". These two complainants did not know each other. The District Court decided to hear these two cases separately, with a different jury for each. Neither jury would know about that there were two complainants, and therefore each jury would presume that Connell had allegedly abused only one boy.

Both cases were heard by Judge Dent. This judge happened to be a Catholic — a  fact  which suited the church authorities.

Father Connell came to court dressed in a way which identified him as a priest. 

In both cases, he pleaded Not Guilty.

The church's well-resourced legal team, representing Connell, seemed to be much better prepared than the public prosecutor who appeared for each of two alleged victims.

Court case no. 1

Kraig's case was heard first. Connell pleaded not guilty to indecent assault of Kraig, aged in his mid-teens, when Connell visited this boy's house in a rural district north of Wagga Wagga

A jury was empanelled but, because the two cases were being heard separately, the jury was not told about the other alleged victim ("Trevor" in Case no.2).

Kraig's police statement, typed by police and signed by Kraig, stated that Connell's home-visit home-visit was in 1967 but Connell's defence disputed this date, saying that the visit was in 1965.

The complainant said that, about a week after the alleged offence, he told his girlfriend (who later became his wife) and also his mother. He said he also told the Reverend Francis Patrick Carroll, who had long been a senior official the Wagga Wagga diocese, eventually becoming the bishop.

Kraig said that his alleged conversation with Carroll took place at a family barbeque, and that Kraig's future wife overheard the conversation. Kraig’s wife would have confirmed this in court but the prosecutor neglected to call her to give evidence. Police believe that the prosecutor (a Catholic) fumbled the prosecution case.

The jury was not told that in 1992 the Wagga Wagga diocese arranged for Connell to work overseas after there had been complaints about abuse of others boys in his parishes.

Bishop Francis Carroll, who was the Archbishop of Canberra-Goulburn in 1997, gave evidence in court, denying that "Kraig" had told him about the Connell incident. Carroll claimed that, "if" he had known about the offence, he "would have" done something about it. The defence lawyer, in his closing address, referred to Carroll’s denial several (implying that a bishop would speak truthfully).

On the second day of the trial, while the defence was into its closing address, Judge Dent called for a short break to allow the jury to freshen up. During this break, the jury indicated that it wished to terminate the two-day trial. The jury gave Father Connell the benefit of the doubt and returned a “not guilty” verdict.

Court case no. 2

In Trevor's case, Connell was charged with sexually assaulting 10-year-old Trevor in a different parish in 1964. Trevor’s signed statement alleged one incident of sodomy and two of indecent assault. 

However, early in the proceedings, Judge Dent granted Father Connell a permanent stay in Trevor's case (that is, the judge stopped Trevor's case permanently).

Further complaints from the past

After his court cases, Bernard Connell re-settled in New South Wales, living at a private address.

In the printed edition of the Australian Catholic Directory in 2002, the Wagga Wagga diocese included "Rev. Bernard Connell, retired" in a list of Wagga Wagga diocese's "supplementary priests" (that is, priests who are not working full-time in a parish). Normally, supplementary or retired priests are available to conduct weddings or funerals or to do Mass (or other locum work) for another priest who is ill or on leave, perhaps in another diocese. The 2002 edition gave Father Connell's residential address as being in Lagoon Street, Ettalong (on the coast, just north of Sydney).

When searching the internet in 2001 and 2002, Broken Rites found that Connell was still referring to himself as "Father Bernie". In an internet posting on 17 November 2001, he gave his name as "Rev. Fr. Bernard. M Connell", of Ettalong Beach. He wrote:

"It is six AM Sunday morning and as I am not saying Mass till evening I am just surfing the net, the sea is a wee bit too cold for a swim..."

In another post on 12 September 2001, Connell wrote: "Now I am retired, I have time to look at how other priests are expressing the Gospel..."

Meanwhile, Kraig and Trevor were not the only young persons who made allegations against Father Connell concerning his earlier career. But some of the other complaints merely went to the church authorities, and the church did not arrange for these complainants to contact the police. After Judge Dent's court hearings, the Catholic Church’s statewide complaints authority for New South Wales [not just the Wagga Wagga diocese] considered some of these complaints against Connell and the possible legal consequences if any of these complainants ever took action against the church. As a result, Bishop Brennan of Wagga Wagga was forced (reluctantly) by the church's statewide authority to officially remove Connell from working as a priest in the Wagga Wagga diocese.

The impact on a victim

Trevor has told Broken Rites that he feels hurt not only by the alleged abuse but also by the church's cover-up. He said:

"When the abuse first occurred, I had to remain silent about it. Priests were on a pedestal of holiness, and I knew that my parents would not believe me if I told them about the abuse. I expected that people would be angry with me for saying negative things (or 'telling lies') about the clergy. Therefore, there was nobody for me to tell. I was forced to remain silent.

"The church's cover-up, as much as the original incidents, had a negative impact on my life. It undermined my relationship with my family, including the wider family of the church and the community. I became less trusting and less conformist. I eventually got into addictions. This development messed up my adult life.

"Eventually, in the early 1990s, I went to counselling for the addictions and, during this counsellng, I revealed for the first time about how I had suffered sexual abuse when I was a ten-year-old altar-boy. The counsellor was horrified and realised that I had been forced to keep this secret for too long. I was later interviewed at a rape crisis centre and I heard about Broken Rites. So in late 1993, I decided to ring Broken Rites as part of my therapy."

The bishop shuns the victim

Trevor said that, after the failure of his court case in 1997, he phoned Bishop Brennan, seeking help. Trevor says:

"All I wanted to know from the bishop was what I could do about Connell and maybe get me some help dealing with the problems that had been caused to my life.

"But all I could get out of Bishop Brennan was, "Well what the heck do you think I can do"? This was said with real sarcasm.

"And that was about the end of my experience with the Catholic church."

Trevor still wants the Catholic Church authorities to apologise to him for the way he was re-victimised by Bishop William Brennan.